Hardly Strictly Tall Stacks

A business trip to San Francisco put the kibosh on my Tall Stacks plans this year, so imagine my surprise to discover the sixth annual “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass” festival at Golden Gate Park this past weekend , featuring a number of musicians who also played at Tall Stacks.

If you thought $20 was a killer deal for a boatload of Tall Stacks music, get this: The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was a three-day park full of free – yes, FREE — shows featuring a who’s who of Roots and Americana music. All thanks to one passionate (and rich) Bluegrass fan, Warren Hellman.

More incredibly, the festival had absolutely no commercial sponsors. The music stretched over five stages – named simply Porch, Rooster, Banjo, Star and Arrow — with not one corporate logo in sight.

I was able to break away on Saturday (Oct. 7), catching performances by T-Bone Burnett (with Elvis Costello sitting in on the final two songs), Earl Scruggs, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and the finest dobro player in the land, Jerry Douglas, who had just played across the country at Tall Stacks two days earlier. Other Tall Stacks performers pulling double-duty included Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs. The fest also featured heavyweight acts like Emmylou Harris, Alejandro Escovedo, Richard Thompson, Iris Dement, Robert Earl Keen and North Mississippi AllStars.

The vibe was genuine San Francisco — a gigantic party full of laid-back stoners, groovin’ to the music. I wasn’t on the banks of the Ohio, but I could almost hear the Pacific Ocean a few hundred yards away.

It was quite the busy weekend in San Francisco (I’m guessing every weekend is “busy”), as the Blue Angels were also in town performing as part of the Bay area’s annual Fleet Week event. My first stop at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was at the quaint Porch Stage, where Jon Langford, Rico Bell and Sally Timms of The Mekons were in the midst of their set. Within minutes, a huge roar drowned out their song as one of the Blue Angels jets streaked past. As if on cue, hundreds of festivalgoers raised their hands in a simultaneous one-finger salute to the Navy’s finest.

After the number was finished, Langford quipped at the irony of the beautiful, peaceful setting being disrupted by the machinery of the American military. The crowd erupted in applause and the band played on.

One question came to mind while I was at the SF fest. If the music festival portion of Tall Stacks were to become an annual Cincinnati event, bookers will no doubt be competing with the HSBF for talent. Would organizers consider moving the event to another weekend in October to have access to more musicians? — Dan Bockrath

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3 Comments on “Hardly Strictly Tall Stacks”


  1. That’s a tough life you have there, Dan. Tall Stacks was a blast, but it definitely missed the rougher side of Americana without Los Lobos, etc. I went down three of the five nights, but really got excited about Al Green, Wilco, and Rhett Miller. John Hiatt was a nice surprise, and local Kelly Thomas put in a great set too.

    On one of the music email lists I’m on, people were raving about the Hardly Strictly festival all weekend, including the mind-blowing number of artists sitting in with each other. It sounds like Elvis Costello had half the roster sitting in at some point.

  2. Jimmy Says:

    Bockrath, you should take all your extra CityBeat money and put on a Hardly Strictly festival for free in Cincinnati next year. Sell one of your mansions!

  3. Joe Gorman Says:

    Dan,
    Two friends of mine were at the SF fest while four other friends attended Tall Stacks every night with me. We traded phone calls during the shows and it was really cool hearing and giving reviews. Elvis Costello won their vote for best (and most diverse) act. Junior Brown, Jerry Douglas, Wilco, Yerba Buena and the eye candy in Ollabelle were highlights here (there were so many!).

    I talked with Tarbell about doing this music fest annually, but am already planning to go to SF next year.

    BTW- Tony Joe White played at a club down from the SF fest and my friends agreed that he was outstanding. The edge for SF over Cincinnati is that they have numerous clubs that are open AFTER the fest is over.


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